EAST LANSING, Mich. - It's second nature to daydream about how things might be like this week had Michigan State played mistake-free football in its opener against Boise State.
Only a short flight of fancy is required to visualize a 23- to 27-point swing.
If the Spartans don't: Turn the ball over at their own 30-yard line, resulting in three Bronco points; have an interception returned for a touchdown from their own 44-yard line; commit a personal foul that puts the ball at their own 21 and sets up BSU's second field goal; have another pass picked off to end a scoring drive at the BSU 3-yard line; end a 35-yard pass play with a fumble at the BSU 18...
... Then they beat a well-respected, high-quality opponent going away, 40-something to nothing, are quite possibly ranked in the Fantasyland Top 10 instead of 11th in the Associated Press poll going into Saturday's game at Central Michigan, and don't have TV commentators/ex-coaches say they were more impressed with Boise State, even though the Broncos were outgained 461-206 and failed to score an offensive touchdown.
Although such a dominant performance would have looked much better to scoreboard watchers and resulted in a bounty of style points, the Spartans have a practical appreciation for their character-testing 17-13 triumph against a well-respected, high-quality opponent.
"It keeps us hungry," said senior outside linebacker and co-captain Chris Norman.
The last things the Spartans have to deal with this week is an inflated team ego and a false sense of security.
Instead of the gratification that comes from too many pats on the back, the Spartans are feeling the sting of self-inflicted kicks in the butt.
"You always improve the most from the first game to the second game," said senior guard Chris McDonald. "Seeing as we played a Top-25 team, and Boise State is a very talented football team, we are coming off a win. Yeah, it wasn't pretty, but it does help us because we know if we get ourselves together and improve, it will make all the difference."
"We know what we're doing," McDonald said. "It was just little mental errors that we need to clean up. We had too many hits on Andrew Maxwell and that's on us (linemen). We can fix it, and the big thing is we know it's stuff we can fix. It's just fundamentals.
"Once we get that, we know we can be extremely better."
All the style points in the world would do nothing to help Michigan State win its historic first visit to CMU, where the atmosphere could drain power from the grid if it's as electrified as anticipated.
The Spartans aren't blind to the fact that mistakes and deficiencies put them precariously close to losing a game the statistics suggest they should have won handily. The close call against Boise State could be the gift that keeps on giving all season long.
"I think so," Norman said, "because we're not going to be satisfied until we see a perfect game out there and we're going to continue to chase that. Against Boise, there were a lot of things we could have done better. Yes, we did well to get the win, but there are some things we have to fix up and I think that's going to keep up hungry and focused."
Given the recent history of the rivalry, approaching Central Michigan any other way should be inconceivable for MSU regardless of the situation. The Chippewas upset the Spartans in Spartan Stadium, 29-27, in 2009, and their back-to-back victories in 1991-92 remain fresh in most fans' minds.
Furthermore, Central Michigan, under third-year coach Dan Enos, the former Michigan State quarterback who worked as Spartan assistant coach under Mark Dantonio from '07-09, is a mirror-image of MSU in many respects.
"Everything is important about this game," said red-shirt junior wide receiver Bennie Fowler. "What we're looking to get out of this game is timing, Maxwell and I and the rest of the receivers. When we went back to the (Boise State) film, it was little mistakes here and there that could have sprung a touchdown."
While the passing attack sputtered at times, and the competition for playing time at wide receiver remains wide open, Fowler chalked up the way MSU beat Boise State as a positive experience.
"There's no reason to get down," he said. "We won a game against a very good team, 17-13. We also turned the ball over four times past our own 50-yard line. If we continue to get better and sustain drives, we'll get better results."
In his first career start, Maxwell completed 22 of 38 passes for 248 yards, which would satisfy many starters across the nation on their best day. Two of his three interceptions could have just as easily been catches instead of deflections and his third likely would have been the second touchdown pass of his career, and first of the season, had he been more accurate by a yard or so.
"It gives us a great deal of confidence," Fowler said. "We still had 400-plus yards of offense, so it's not like the receivers were completely awful. We can do a lot better, but I thought we did real good for our first time out.
"We do have to make a statement that we're not going to take any opponent lightly. A couple years ago, Central came in here and beat us. That was a very tough loss for us. It really messed up that whole year for us. They're going to be amped and ready to play at their home, and we have to continue to make a statement every week to show that we're worthy of a BCS game, because we still haven't gotten that yet."
From a coaching perspective, the season opener really couldn't have turned out much better. It's not like the Spartans won because of fluke, or stole a game they deserved to lose.
The coaches have plenty of proof backing up their coaching points, the players should be extra-motivated to subject themselves to self-analysis and self-correction, and humble pie - and after a steady diet of hype and ballyhoo - is a lot easier to serve, and swallow, after a tough win.
"It shows we can win a close game and we can respond to adversity," Dantonio said. "It shows when things aren't going quite well, we can get back on track. We have some young players out there playing, so we're going to make some mistakes. There is no question about that.
"I would think this grounds our team. You have to remember, for eight months, we've been, you know, talked about, et cetera. So I think this is a moment of reflection, let's just use that.
"We'll have a week of reflection."